It has been put to me more than once that Shia Muslims represent a more civilised portion of the Islamic multitude than the Sunni majority. For evidence, those who hold to this argument present the cases of Iran and Lebanon.
Despite their troubles and imperfect governments, it is undoubtedly the case that these two countries enjoy a higher and more recognisably (to a European) civilised form of social order that the lowly standards of the Islamic world. Iran, regardless of its theocratic state, rarely experiences beheadings and terrorism. Lebanon, despite Hezbollah, has retained a level of social peace conducive to a flourishing tourism industry. It is less surprising to hear of an Iranian or Lebanese intellectual being nominated for a Nobel prize than it would be to hear of the same honour bestowed on a Saudi or Afghan. And when one looks at a photograph of Tehran or Beirut, it is easy to imagine one is looking at a city in Eastern or Southern Europe.
In Iraq, where 70% of the population is Shia, the civil war further revealed this distinction. During Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s reign of terror, almost all of the acts of terrorism in the conflict were Sunni against Shia. And when the Shia did respond, it was more often with law and state, rather than bomb and machete.
It’s all very convincing isn’t it? To be sure, an increasing number are very convinced of it. I’m not yet one of them though and I have 3 reasons to support this stubbornness:
1. Despite the undeniably unique aspects of their religious system, Shia Muslims nevertheless revere and follow the Qur’an as their infallible manifesto of life and behaviour.
2. Despite the moderation of the Iranian population, the Iranian state continues to stone women and hang gays for explicitly Shia Islamic reasons.
3. (related to No. 2) Shia Islam exercises Sharia law just as fervently as Sunni Islam and believes it should supersede civil legislation.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t add greater nuance to our dealings with Shia countries than with Sunni ones, because we probably should. But I don’t believe (or have yet to be convinced) that a Shia country can serve as a reliable ally of the West. Too much separates us and that which does so is of crucial importance.